Thomas Fields was on his way to the NBA. He started playing basketball in the 2nd grade. In the 8th grade, he practiced with the high school varsity team. As a freshman, he not only made the varsity but was the starting shooting guard. He received a lot of interest from college recruiters and was in the top 20 of the state rankings.
Then there were the injuries: A torn ACL in his right knee. Later, one in his left knee. Then a torn meniscus. That’s when the doctor told him to put the ball down, if he expected to still be walking when he was 60.
So he went on to Plan B. When he was recuperating from his early injuries, he found the high school’s basketball shooting machine really helpful. The problem was getting to use it. There were times he would go to school at 5 a.m. to get time on the machine. Some of those times the coach forgot to show up to open the gym for him. One of those times, he sat on the sidewalk outside the gym in the dark and daydreamed: What if he didn’t have to wait for someone to give him access to the machine? What if he had his own? What if it didn’t cost $4,000 like the high school’s? He began sketching a portable, affordable shooting machine and that ultimately led to his company GRIND that uses design and technology to develop interactive products that elevate practice for athletes—and he started with basketball.
The GRIND Machine
Thomas created a basketball shooting machine designed specifically to improve basketball players’ catch-and-shoot efficiency, footwork, balance, explosion, follow-through, creativity, and basketball IQ.
- The machine has a 12-foot net around the rim to force players to put more of an arc on their shots for a higher percentage of made shots and muscle memory.
- The machine catches both made and missed shots (approximately 500 balls an hour) and automatically passes the ball back to the player to develop in the player the ability to react in a fraction of a second.
- There is a “No Standing” rule. Players need to keep moving; the machine uses only one ball and passes it every 3-4 seconds. In addition to developing a great shot, players learn to:
- Move without the ball,
- Catch and attack,
- Make shots while fatigued, and
- Perfect their footwork.
- Note: Size 7 (men’s basketball) and size 6 (boys/girls/women’s basketball) are used. Smaller basketballs will come out of the machine with too much force. Larger basketballs may get stuck in the funnel.
- The machine is portable. It folds up into its own special weather-protective duffel bag that measures 4 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet and has wheels for easy transport.
Life After Basketball
Thomas gave 100% to creating his shooting machine just like he did when he played basketball. He started the research and development in his garage in Houston, while earning a degree in Business Administration from the University of Houston. He was also part of MIT’s Success Initiative at the Sloan School of Management. Over the course of two years, with other selected startup entrepreneurs, he participated in a series of workshops that included entrepreneurial strategy, raising financing, customer validation, running experiments, marketing strategy, and managing people.
Thomas was also an Executive Volunteer for a Prison Entrepreneurship Program, where ironically enough, he played the part of a “shark.” The program’s mission was to unlock the potential of inmates through encouraging entrepreneurial projects and providing education and mentoring. Thomas was on a panel of six “sharks” who listened to the participants’ pitches, gave them feedback, and then met with them one on one.
To get GRIND to market, he partnered with Hatch Duo, an industrial design and product engineering company that helps startups “hatch” ideas. Together, they engineered, tested and made prototypes, which resulted in the final product that would be sold online.
Upgrades to Come
Thomas is never one to sit back satisfied. He has plans for subsequent versions of the basketball shooting machine, including:
- The machine counting made and missed shots.
- Software allowing players to track their analytics and even challenge other players around the world if they care to.
- Providing another level of exposure for players by making shooting stats accessible to college coaches and recruiters.
- Offering interactive shooting drills and shot tracking through a smart phone app.
The GRIND Mission
GRIND is about more than basketball shooting machines. Thomas wants to encourage inner-city kids to pursue careers in engineering and technology. Maybe they love sports. Maybe they are natural athletes. They can enjoy that without putting all of their balls in one basket—so to speak. The fact is that fewer than 2% of NCAA student-athletes go on to play professionally. Thomas wants kids to know that there are sports-related fields open to them.